`I fail at everything.` It was the only thing that ran in Loki’s mind as his body plunged into the abyss, twisting here and there like a rag doll, buffeted by the remmnants of the energy he had previously unleashed through the Bifrost. It repeated again and again and again and again even as consciousness began to leave him, slowly and inexorably.
`Fail,` was the last thing his mind knew, all with raw, jagged certainty.
Consciousness, sluggish and sticky and bitter like ahrro-tree sap in late autumn, brought with itself total disorientation. The only thing that registered to the delirious mind at first, with an ample amount of surprise that it did not recognise the cause of but the aching heart knew all too well, was, `I am alive.`
And then, knowledge of the outside world seeped in, before knowledge of self could take hold of the yet scattered attention: `Dark. Cold. Damp. Earthy. Hard. Rough. Unfamiliar. Seiðr.`
None of the information made sense. The pieces were all jumbled, whirling and hopping about like busy little bees in spring.
The mind and heart clicked into synchronisation on the `seiðr` piece, however, once it plopped in. The knowledge and power were instinctive and bone-deep, soul-deep, removable only by death.
And this person was not dead.
`But why? What happened?`
Seiðr – another’s seiðr – prodded at the mind. It recoiled, threw up shields, tried to lash out.
“I apologise, child. I needed to know if you were yet asleep.”
`Deep. Gravelly. Unfamiliar. So close. Too close! So far above….`
“Who are you?” the lips tried to let out. But what came out was just a weak, reverberating croak that hurt the throat.
A small shard of ice was pushed between the lips. It was automatically sucked at.
It did not taste like ice. `Soft. Thick. Smooth. Pleasantly cool. A little bland. A little sweet. A little sour. A little salty.` It exploded into some kind of odd warmth in the stomach, travelled to all directions almost instantly, strengthened everything that it touched with intimate knowledge.
The throat moaned for more, without the mind’s permission.
It was given.
Again, and again, and again, and again.
The body regained strength and power with each little bit – generously given, greedily taken.
The throat moaned again when some time had passed without such sustenance. But no more heavenly bits of ice-like little shards were given.
“I apologise, child.” The speaker sounded truly remorseful, so impossibly gentle, even tender. So calm and so quiet, at that; peaceful, for such a deep, gravelly voice – which general timbre the mind half remembered as being hostile.
“I will need some strength for myself as well, to hunt and forage,” the speaker continued, and the mind found itself lagging back, buoyed by that tone. “The storm season is upon us.”
`Some strength for myself? Storm season?` The mind tried to comprehend, tried to tease out details and backgrounds, tried to make sense of it all, but it failed.
`Fail. I fail at everything.` Something echoed as if from the deep past. The mind recoiled; the heart as well.
The throat let out a pathetic, embarrassing whimper. The body tried to curl into itself.
“Hush, child. Let us pray to Ýmir that the wilds will be aplenty today. I shall be able to nurse you more, if so.” Rough but gentle fingers – `So huge!` – combed through the hair. A sweeter memory echoed in the mind, triggered by the gesture. The body leant into the touch, and the throat let out a contented purr.
“Sleep now, child. Sleep now. May Ýmir guard you. May They guide your dreams to sweet snows.” Fondness was in the gravelly voice, alongside sadness and a subtly permeating heartache. The rough but gentle fingers never ceased their hypnotic stroking. And now a tiny sliver of seiðr was added to it, whispering – promising, as only pure intent could – about rest and safety.
The self obeyed.
A new routine was soon established: Awaken, suckle at a few ice-shard-like bits, sleep.
The owner of the gravelly voice liked to stroke hair, apparently. The self liked to receive it – nearly as much as the crystalised strength and warmth that the gravelly voice always offered upon awakening. And, without failing, the hair stroking, added with that bit of seiðr-tinged prayer about restful dreams, preceded each moment of slumber.
It was nice, not to fail or be failed for once, although the self did not know – did not want to know – when was the last time it had failed at something.
After all, the bitterer echoes of memories were firm on one point: `I fail at everything.`
The body recovered first. The mind – what shards of it remaining in the head – awakened next. The heart, the skittish thing that it was, healed its most jagged edges last.
The throat could now form the question the self had tried to pose at the first awakening. The body could now leave the bedding of stone and snow and old, rough fur covering if it so wished. The eyes could now open to behold the look – the basic identity – of the tender, attentive caregiver, likewise.
But the self did not do any of those.
Because the heart, the skittish thing that it was, did not wish to meet with reality.
And, unlike in the memories of the deep past that the self refused to touch, the gravelly voice let it remain in the comfort of darkness, anonymyty and self-chosen immobility. The ice-shard-like treat came rarely now, but it was substituted by a surprisingly clear and pleasant humming from the gravelly voice, so the self did not mind it – not too much, at any rate.
The owner of the gravelly voice seemed huge and terribly skinny, in comparison to the self. A part of the mind always shrieked in worry – whether for the self or for the gravelly voice, the mind did not wish to specify – whenever they shared the bedding for sleep. However, a greater – much greater – part of it purred in delight in tandem with the throat, always, when that huge, bony frame enveloped the self thoroughly in coolness that felt so much like a memory of warmth.
The gravelly voice was rarely home, though. Its presence became even rarer as the wind outside began to whip about ferociously more often than not, so the closeness was yet another treat that was gradually withdrawn.
The clear but pleasant humming was the weather’s next victim. It was scratchy and weak, and even a little bit shaky at times, now; the hair stroking that accompanied it, likewise. The gravelly voice – not only the humming – even quavered, some time afterwards, when there was only one ice-shard-like treat to have and yet the throat – the self – moaned for more.
And then, one moment, the gravelly voice whispered, “I apologise, child,” as the two of them huddled on the bedding while a storm raged outside. No elaboration followed, to explain the apology, and the self still felt reluctant to speak, let alone to demand for such answer, so the both of them fell into silence. The big, ponderous heartbeats audible to one ear sufficed to quell the questions, and the pair of huge, skinny arms enfolding the body lulled the mind into slumber.
But upon the next awakening, the heartbeats were still, and the enfolding arms were now like cage bars to the body. A sharp, vaguely cloying smell filled the nose, emanating from the cold, hardened surface that had not been there before sleep had come.
The owner of the gravelly voice did not stir or call out or actively try to hinder, as the body squirmed away from the odor and hardened surface that was everywhere.
The eyes opened at last, as the body got free and tumbled down the high platform of the bedding.
They looked up, and saw a huge but skinny bluish grey being lying unmoving on the platform. It lied on one side with arms hooked on each other, creating a circle big enough for a comparably small body. Darkened markings decorated its face and body and limbs, simple and few but there. Its eyes were closed as if in peaceful repose.
`Jötun,` the part of the mind that had always been aware – guarded, worried, suspicious – whispered. Memory echoes of war and monsters brushed conscious recall. But, again, the mind recoiled.
`Healer,` the heart insisted, parrying, twisting up into a developing ache that threatened to burst into agony and loss and loneliness.
The self could not recoil, could not veer away.
There was nothing – nobody – to veer away to; no longer.
Reality turned out as bitter and cloying as the odor of death was.
The body – this body, still living, still breathing, despite all odds and efforts – crumpled onto the rough stone floor before the bed platform, as if a desperate supplicant before a monarch. Sobs tore out from the throat that had only known demands for food and purrs of contentment before this moment in this unknown land.
`Who are you?` the mind wanted to shriek into the unhearing ears of the unnamed, unknown monster that had given its everything away to him, for him, because of him. `I was Loki of Asgard. I am a monster. You are not a monster. Live. Let me die in your stead. Let me die as I planned.`
The self – he – did not stir, could not cease weeping, refused to leave, as footsteps came near from behind. A pair of hands – stormy cerulean, slender, far smaller than those – sought to tug him to his feet, not long after. The newcomer – a monster, it must be; another monster – was weeping as well, but softly, as if long spent already.
“Let Elder Vrelkki sleep in peace, little one,” came the entreaty, next, in the same scratchy, quavering voice as that one’s last humming had been.
A parting song. A last bit of comfort. From a monster to a monster. `And I was willfully ignorant about it. I failed to recognise it, failed to find out.`
`I fail at everything,` the memory – now sharp as a jagged knife’s edge – offered, and reality concurred.
But this failure, it was one of the greatest.